Positive Thesis Perfectionism and the Pursuit of Excellence

Thesis perfectionism is often seen as a problem for thesis writers, but is it really?

Can perfectionism be positive? In the right circumstances, it can be.

Conventional wisdom

The conventional wisdom says that thesis perfectionism is a bad thing.

If you worry too much about getting it perfect, then you won’t be able to write anything. Or if you do write something, you’ll never be satisfied and will get stuck in an endless cycle of writing and rewriting and never finish.

So you end up with advice telling you not to worry about the details. To just get words down on the page. To come back and edit later. Just get something done. (See the worst thesis writing advice ever [and what to do instead]).

This works only as a short-term fix for writer’s block. If you don’t think too much you can probably write 1000 words in a couple of hours, but eventually you will run out of momentum and be back where you started.

Or if you do manage to write several thousand words, it will be a mess of poorly structured thoughts with depth and no supporting detail. This is very hard to edit! So the temptation is always to move to writing about something fresh to get that momentum going again. Following this path you can end up with 6 chapters all in a state of “70% done”, but nothing actually finished and in a submissible state.

The more you write, the more detail is left for later. The harder it becomes to make any progress, and the more stressful life becomes as the months tick away.

But this is normal, right?

What is perfectionism?

Thesis perfectionism has been given a bad name, but that’s only because it’s misunderstood.

If you’re never happy with what you’ve written, is that perfectionism? Or is it something else?

Often, it’s just a lack of confidence, or being indecisive in what you are trying to say. So you write and rewrite but still aren’t happy. Or you worry so much about whether it will be good enough in the eyes of the examiner that you are too scared to write anything.

Just getting more on the page, then, isn’t going to help. What you need is the confidence to make a clear, assertive statement which you know you can defend.

This comes from knowing that you’ve taken the time and care to verify what you’re saying. Knowing that the evidence is there (and knowing where it is). Understanding the consequences of the argument you’re making, and Questioning yourself in a constructive way. In other words, taking time and care over the details.

Absolute perfection is unattainable (if you write 100,000 words there will be a spelling mistake soemwhere),  but excellence is attanable, and there’s nothing wrong with aiming for it.

The pursuit of excellence

The first attempt

It’s true that you shouldn’t worry too much about your first attempt at a sentence or paragraph. All you need to get started is some idea of what you want to say.

Because we don’t think in perfectly formed sentences, the first version is often a bit clunky. That’s OK. As long as you know what you’re trying to say, you can then work to improve it.

But if you edit immediately, while the thought is fresh in your head, it is much easier than writing 10s of thousands of words and then coming back to sort out the mess.

Exploring many options

There is no one right answer, no one right way of expressing an idea.

So you can and should explore many options without being too attached to any one.

The key is to immerse yourself in the idea and give it deep thought.

Immersion

Whatever idea you’re trying to express, immerse yourself in it. Stay with it.

Look at what you’ve written. Do you know what point you’re trying to make? Does it make sense? Is it true? Have you really cut through to the essence of the argument? Is there another, better way to phrase it? Do you have the references and evidence to back up what you’re saying?

Sometimes you might get stuck. This could be because;

  • If the thought isn’t yet clear in your own head, you have no hope of communicating it effectively.
  • If you don’t have the references to back up what you’re saying, you can’t write with confidence.

If you don’t have a strong foundation, then it might feel like writer’s block. But actually what you need to do is spend some time either finding the information or clarifying what you want to say.

Whatever section or idea you are working on, stay with it and do what’s necessary (whether finding the evidence or just spending more time thinking) to be able to write about it with confidence.

Then you can actually complete the section knowing that you’ve done the work to give your writing a solid foundation.

Constructive self-criticism

You will have to defend your work, but you can strengthen your defence by anticipating criticism.

Question your own results and interpretation, and the address those questions in your writing (or change your interpretation if you find a major flaw).

This is not the same as self-doubt. Self-doubt is stops you doing anything, but self-criticism is essential.

Care and pride in your work

When looking at literature, my view was always that I wouldn’t cite anything that wasn’t of a high standard.

I took time and meticulous care over my figures, to get them just right.

I looked after it, I nurtured it, and I gave every section the time and thought it deserved. I did it well for the sake of doing it well, and not for external approval, and so I finished each day happy with what I’d done, which made the next day easy to start.

Of course it was balanced by the need to finish. I still aimed for a minimum of 500 words a day, I just made sure they were good quality.

In anticipation of the comments…

I know that many will disagree with this approach. They will say that there’s no point worrying about the details because some things might not end up in the final thesis.

To them I say, “so what?”

It’s the nature of research and writing that some things you put effort into won’t be useful in the end. But if you at least put time and care into each idea then you can cut it decisively if you know you gave it a good shot and it didn’t work out.

Some details are more important than others, and you must prioritise and not let yourself get sucked into spending day after day on irrelevancies, but the details do matter. You will have to take care of them eventually, so you might as well do it now.

Positive Thesis Perfectionism

Sometimes thesis perfectionism can help you get things done faster, because you have taken the care to do things well the first time round.

I was never a very good physicist, but finished my thesis in 3 months, passed with zero corrections, and found the writing-up phase the least stressful and most enjoyable part of the whole process.

The key is to find a sense of relaxed control. To be able to take the time to do things well, irrespective of deadlines, yet still aiming to complete every section you work on.

Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo): It’s a great idea, but…

November is academic writing month. If you’re into twitter, you may have noticed the #AcWriMo hashtag flying around, but if not, here’s the deal.

  1. During November, set yourself some crazy writing goals.
  2. Tell everyone
  3. Take action
  4. Declare your results

Because there will be thousands of students doing this at the same time, you’ll be able to share your experience, get advice, and join in the feeling of shared effort so you don’t have to feel isolated while you do it.

You can check out the complete (but simple) rules of academic writing month over on the PhD2Published blog.

Academic Writing Month: It’s a great idea, but…

I think academic writing month is a great idea, especially because of the community aspect. Also because the timing in November means you can have a concentrated burst of productivity before December and the associated shenanegans of Christmas and the new year.

I am certain that there will be plenty of success stories, but there are some potential problems you should be aware of.

1. Announcing goals doesn’t always work…

It’s widely believed that announcing your goals makes you more likely to follow through with them, because there is an element of accountability.

The problem, though, is that making the announcement gives you a slight psychological reward as if you have already achieved the goal (just like making detailed plans can make you feel good too, without having actually done the work).

This flies in the face of the standard advice, but sometimes it’s better to delay gratification, keep your goals to yourself and focus on what needs to be done, as explained by Derek Sivers in this video.

I also included this video in the blog post “Are some targets bad for your productivity?”

2. Focusing on high word-count is dangerous

Academic writing is about more than just word count. It’s about effective communication of difficult ideas.

When you start writing something new, there will be plenty of things which flow easily because you know them well, and you will be able to write fast. But inevitably, you will reach a point where you have to explain something that requires more thought and effort, and you will slow down.

This is a natural and unavoidable part of the writing process, and you just need to slow down and give some thought to what you want to say and how to say it. It may be that you need to think about how to link one idea to the next, or you need to check a reference, or take some time to find the right wording.

Many people mistake this natural slowdown for writer’s block, and received wisdom states that you should just get words down on the page and figure out the details later. But these details matter, and it’s best to engage with them now rather than save all the difficult bits for later (see the worst thesis writing advice ever, and what to do instead).

3. There will be bias in the AcWriMo results…

Part of the AcWriMo process is reporting your results. This is good, but it’s likely that the only people reporting results will be those who have achieved their goals.

For some people, it might not work, and it may be demoralising to see everyone else announcing how successful they have been. If you take part and you don’t meet your goals, I strongly advise you to announce this too, then readjust your goals to make them achievable the next day.

What I would suggest is setting an easy goal the first day (say 500 words), then if you smash it and do 800, set the target for 1000 the next day. To push yourself, go slightly beyond what you find comfortable, but do not work yourself to exhaustion because you have to last the whole month.Then if you can’t sustain 1000 per day, drop back down to 500 again because you know it is achievable.

4. Work on one thing, finish it

If you have a daily word count target, make it part of another target, such as “finish chapter 3”.

It’s common to get stuck just before the end of a chapter because you come to a point where it’s all about the small details rather than producing large volumes of new text. The temptation is to leave it for later and work on something else to maintain the rate of word production, but it’s much better to focus instead on finishing.

That way, you can move on to the next thing with a sense of satisfaction that you’ve completed something, rather than having that nagging sense that you’ll have to come back to it later.

So maybe set your crazy academic writing month goal as finishing a big piece of writing, and make your word count targets a subordinate part of that to help you on the way.

5. Work on something you can finish

In order to finish a piece of writing, other things need to be finished first.

For example, if you are writing a data chapter, you can’t finish the writing unless you have collected all the data. If you start writing before that, then you’ll hit an inevitable block (unless you are capable of time travel).

If something needs to be finished before you can finish the writing, do that first!

Good luck!

As  I said, I think it’s a great idea, so best of luck if you’re taking part.

I’d like to know if you face any problems, so leave your comments below!

How to write a thesis you can defend easily

An unavoidable part of the thesis-writing process is that at some point an expert in the field is going to read and assess your work.

You could be asked to defend or justify any part of your thesis… they might point out mistakes or question the validity of your arguments… or even ask whether the research question is one worth answering.

Naturally, the thesis defence this can be a daunting prospect, but there are things you can do during the writing process to make the future defence easier.

1. Anticipate criticism

By anticipating criticism, you can strengthen your defences against it.

What other approaches or interpretations could be made? If you acknowledge them and give a reasoned justification for why you did what you did or think what you think, then your defence is built into the thesis.

It shows that you can take an objective view of your research and have considered many options, acknowledging and addressing any weaknesses before the examiner has a chance to.

2. Try to prove yourself wrong

Be active in examining doubts, rather than letting a sense of unease sit at the back of your mind.

If you have reached a surprising conclusion, you should be the first to question whether it is true. Check and recheck your data. Try to think of alternative explanations and ways to test them. Show your work to others and get them to question it- you don’t want the defence to be the first time you get feedback on your research.

If your conclusion survives that process, then you will be able to defend it with far more confidence.

3. Be clear about what you are claiming

As I’ve said before, the examiner can disagree with you, but they should never misunderstand you.

Make a clear statement about what you are trying to say, so that both you and the examiner know what you are defending.

This can be difficult, and sometimes you can end up writing in circles if you are unsure about what you want to say. If that’s the case, slow down and imagine someone has just asked you, “so what are you trying to say?”

4. Only cite literature you have read and understood

If you misrepresent someone else’s work, and the examiner notices, you could be in trouble.

Never include things just for the sake of increasing your bibliography.

5. Stick mainly to what you know

Your thesis is unique, as is your experience and expertise. Focus on what you know well (and if you need to learn something new, go and learn it before you write about it).

It’s better to bring the examiner into territory where you are strong, than to stray into weak areas because you think that’s where they want to be.

6. Focus on the work, not the outcome

It’s hard, but try not to worry about the defence too much. Instead, focus on doing the work to the best of your ability.

You cannot predict or control what an examiner will ask you.  All you can do is give each section of the thesis the care and attention it deserves.  If you do that, then the chances are it will work out OK.

—-

See also: How to prepare for your thesis defence

Siege_orleans

The most important thesis writing tool ever invented

You can argue forever* about whether to use Google scholar or Web of Knowledge, Word or LaTeX, Excel or Origin…

But the most important tool is the simplest.

Get yourself a thesis writing notebook, and make it the first and last thing you use every day.

Start the day by writing down what you hope to achieve. Break down tasks into small, achievable milestones, and tick them off as you go.

Write down ideas and tasks for later throughout the day… so you don’t lose the thought, but you don’t get distracted from what you’re working on now, either.

And at the end of the day, write down ideas for tomorrow.

It’s the simplest technology in the world, but sometimes the simplest things make the biggest difference.

 

(* there is no argument. Use LaTeX, WOK and Origin.)

Leaving your thesis introduction till last? It could be a mistake…

The introduction to your thesis is the first thing the examiner will read. It’s your only chance to form a first impression, if the examiner doesn’t already know you. It sets the background, context and motivation for your work. And so it’s at least as important as every other chapter.

And yet a lot of people leave writing the introduction till last and if you’re near the deadline, it’ll be written in a rush. This is a mistake. If you write your introduction as a hurried afterthought, or as just a dry list of things that will be covered later then they will want to skim read it to get to the proper work in later chapters.

It is far better to write an engaging introduction, having spent time thinking about why your research matters and why anyone would want to read about it.

Why you might write the intro last

If you are writing chapters but you don’t yet know the full story, then it might make sense to write the introduction last.

If you’re doing this, I guarantee you will be stressed in the run up to submission. Why? because you’re trying to finish the research and the writing all at the same time.

It’s like cooking for a dinner party and constantly running out to buy ingredients while the guests are arriving. It’s not going to end well!

Stop, finish your research, then resume writing once you know what you’re going to say.

Writing an engaging thesis introduction

The job of the introduction is to make the reader want to read the rest of the thesis.

Examiners are busy people. When your thesis arrives on their desk, there will be that moment of dread… will this be an interesting read, or will it be like wading through wet cement?

A good thesis introduction will set up a sense of anticipation.

Why is this work important? And why should anyone care?

Here are a few tips to help you write an engaging introductory chapter:

1. Start with the big picture

Start with an idea of how the whole thesis will be structured. What will be covered in each subsequent chapter? Then when you talk about specific concepts in the intro, you can say “this will be discussed further in chapter …”.

Without these references to what you will cover later, the examiner might be wondering, “why are you telling me this?”

2. General > specific > general

A good structure to follow for the chapter is to start broad. Why does your field of research matter to the wider world?

Then you can talk about specific things related to your niche, and say why those matter to your field of research.

Then at the end of the chapter, try to link your specific niche back to the general, wider world again.

3. Give them something unexpected

Examiners have read a lot about your subject, but they don’t know you.

Give them something unexpected; a unique perspective, something that interests you or that you find fascinating, and they will be interested to read more.

4. Set boundaries

At some point early in the chapter (but not necessarily the first paragraph) tell the reader what you will cover in the chapter.

In my thesis, I included the following paragraph after a brief introduction of about 2 pages as to why nanoscience and nanotechnology matter:

Though there are several excellent general reviews of nanoscience and technology
(3–6), each to some extent reflects the authors’ personal research interests
and expertise. Due to the pace of development and breadth of research,
a truly comprehensive review is probably impossible, and certainly beyond
the scope of this thesis. The following brief review presents the properties
of semiconductor and metal nanostructures, in addition to the principles of
self-assembly and self organisation.

So I set out clearly what the review would cover, while pointing the reader to more general reviews for reference.

This meant I could be highly focused on specific principles, but also relate these back to the general motivation of the field.

It helps if you know what you want to cover, and how it relates to your research!

5. Relate your work to the best in the field

When you talk about the state of the art in your field, focus on the very best work.

This not only reduces the number of papers you have to reference, but it gives your thesis a feeling of quality by association. It shows that you have some standards and appreciation for good research.

Say why that work matters, and you help to justify your own.

6. Where are the gaps?

Once you’ve talked about the best work in the field, what gaps in the knowledge remain?

This is where you introduce your work:

Although giant strides have been made in recent years in the field of …, there remains an open question as to …

The work described in the following chapters attempts to …

7. Tying it up and introducing the next chapter

Your introductory chapter needs a conclusion, but it also needs to set up a sense of anticipation. You want the examiner to want to read the rest of your thesis (or at least the next chapter).

So it’s good to summarise the general principles you have just introduced, state a problem or question that needs an answer (and why it matters in relation to the general aims of your research field), and give a quick hint of how the next chapter will help to answer that question.

If man-made nanostructures are to follow a similar path [to nature], exploiting guided self-assembly to rapidly form functional structures, we must study both the physics of structure formation at the nanoscale and the influence of structure on function, specifically optical and electronic properties.

Scanning probe techniques provide a versatile means of characterisation of these structures.

Specifically, scanning near-field optical microscopy (SNOM)
provides a means of optical characterisation with resolutions beyond the classical diffraction limit, in parallel with topographic information. These techniques, along with synchrotron based spectroscopy to probe deeper into the
electronic properties of nanostructured assemblies, will be discussed in the following chapters.

Does this structure work?

My examiner wrote in his report that the first chapter of my thesis was one of the best introductions to the subject he had ever read, including those published in the literature.

I was never a particularly good physicist, compared to some of the people I have worked with. But first impressions count, and introductions matter.

Will the examiner tear my thesis apart?

You’ve done years of research, you’ve got the results, you’ve done the analysis, drawn your conclusions… But what if the examiner tears your thesis apart?

Obviously you want to avoid the humiliation of having your thesis torn to pieces. So here are the 7 deadly sins of thesis writing to avoid at all costs.

1. Lies

Any hint that you’ve fabricated results, or tried to cover up major problems by lying, and the examiner will tear you apart.

If you feel tempted (or pressured) to lie about your research in your thesis or in published journals, it’s really time to have a good look at your situation, and talk honestly with someone you trust. The temptation is understandable, but it’s just not worth it.

2. Bullshit

Distinct from outright lies, bullshit involves trying to give the impression of expertise in a subject you actually know very little about.

It’s tempting to try to appear like you know everything, but it’s far better to give more detail on subjects you are genuinely expert in.

3. Plagiarism

Even if you get away with plagiarism in your thesis, you can lose your doctorate if someone finds out later. This happened to the German defence minister in 2011.

It is sometimes hard to paraphrase other people’s writing, so it’s better to try explaining the idea to someone verbally then writing about it in your own way.

Never sit with the paper in front of you and try to rearrange sentences to make it look different. It just doesn’t work.

4. Misrepresentation of other people’s work

You will have to write about other people’s work, and give references to back up your arguments. It’s very, very important that you know what these references actually say, because the examiner will tear you apart if you misrepresent other people’s work (especially if it is the examiner’s work).

Don’t cite anything you haven’t actually read.

5. Getting the basics wrong

It’s OK to have the occasional mistake, but if you make a fundamental mistake in your assumptions which then undermines your conclusions, then you are in trouble.

6. Ignorance

While you aren’t expected to know everything, you should have a good knowledge of relevant developments in your field and some knowledge beyond your highly specialised niche.

It depends how broad your field is, but at the very least you should be aware of who the top people are and the most highly cited papers.

7. Lack of insight

What does it all mean? How does your work relate to the wider field? What are the limitations of your research and what open questions remain (or are raised)?

You have to give the examiner an idea of what and how you think, beyond just the dry technical details.

You have to be willing to commit to what you think, and know that you can defend it.

It will be OK!

If you avoid these 7 sins, as long as the basic research is OK (it doesn’t have to change the world), and as long as you write honestly and don’t stray too far from what you are expert in, then you should be OK.

torn thesis

How I wrote a PhD thesis in 3 months

Before reading this post please note: it took three and a half years of full-time research to gather the data for my  PhD thesis; the three months refers only to the writing, which I did quickly at the end. I do not claim that everybody can write that fast, and, certainly, if you have not done the research it will be impossible. You probably won’t write as fast as I did, but you might gain some useful insights from the way I approached it.

After almost 3 years, I was on the verge of quitting my PhD in the summer of 2006.

I had nowhere near enough results, the equipment I was using didn’t work most of the time, and I could barely summon the motivation to get up in the morning.

So how did I turn things around, get the results I needed and write my thesis in 3 months?

1. Dealing with stress

After a near-breakdown, I started taking walks around the campus when I faced a problem in my research or found myself getting stressed.

I took the time to think about what I needed to do and get myself in the right frame of mind to come back and deal with the problem.

Previously I would have found myself killing time on the internet just to get through to the end of the day. This one change in habit probably saved my PhD.

2. Limiting the time available

Though my productivity increased once I figured out how to deal with stress, I was still doing experiments well into my fourth year.

I had a final submission date (at the end of my 4th year), but my research was still a bit chaotic. It wasn’t focused on finishing.

My supervisor (the brilliant Professor Moriarty) then told me that I would no longer be allowed into the lab after the end of March 2007, and that I would have to write whatever I had.

3. Adapting and acting decisively

Because of the limited time, I had to make some tough decisions. Anything I did, I would either have to finish or let go. There would be some loose ends, but that was OK as long as I tied up others.

I had to decide not to do certain things, and focus with energy and determination on others.

Still, though, the thesis would be a little thin. So I took on a side project based on another student’s research, which could produce some results quickly.

This side project produced the most interesting result of my scientific career.

4. Finishing research before writing

By the time I stopped doing experiments, I knew I had enough for a PhD. Not the best PhD ever, and not world-changing, but with two publications and enough data for another, I felt it was good enough.

Because I wasn’t allowed back in the lab, I just had to focus on writing. The hard part was behind me. The results weren’t going to change, so it was just a matter of making sure I was productive when writing.

It is much, much easier to write when you know the raw material isn’t going to change.

5. Preparation

I decided to work at home, not at the office, because there would be fewer distractions.

I got rid of the TV, and had no internet connection on my computer. The lack of internet meant I had to gather all the papers I would need beforehand, forcing me to think about what I would need.

I also set up a dedicated space (2 large desks joined together and a very comfortable chair, next to a large window for plenty of natural light), just for thesis writing.

6. Targets and consistency

I set myself a target of 3 months, broken down into targets for each chapter. This would give me about 3 months in reserve before the final absolute deadline.

I had a daily minimum target of 500 words, which I knew I could meet even on the least productive days.

This meant that because I smashed the target most days, I finished every day feeling good about my progress, which in turn meant I started the next day feeling confident.

7. Routine

The two most important parts of the day are the beginning and end. It’s important to build momentum early, and have a routine for ending the day too.

At the end of each day I always left myself something easy to do to get started with the next day, so I woke up knowing what I was going to do.

I also tidied the desk at the end of every day, which also helped close the day mentally and stopped my brain going over and over the thesis at night.

8. Applying ruthless standards to what I included

Whether it was the lit review, or my own work, I cut anything sub-standard.

I focused only on the very best literature, saving myself a huge amount of time. It also had the result of associating my work with the very best in the field.

I only wrote about what I knew about, which made the thesis shorter, faster and easier to write, and of higher quality than if I had included everything whether I understood it or not.

9. Taking time over details that matter

I took painstaking care over the clarity of the writing, the diagrams and the overall look of the thesis.

If a diagram took 2 hours, so be it. If I couldn’t find a high-quality image in a paper to paste in, I would re-draw it myself. Why? Because it adds so much to the feel of quality running through the thesis.

“The unreconstructed Si(111) surface”. This took a very long time to draw and make sure the diagram was accurate.

By applying obsessive focus to one detail at a time, I could make sure that I wouldn’t have to do it again. This brings me to the final point…

10. One draft

I always edit as I write, with one goal only: to make sure I’ve expressed the idea in my head clearly on the page. I don’t move on until I feel the sentence makes sense, with no ambiguity of meaning.

Clarity of thought is always the number one aim. But it is very difficult to come back to a piece of writing days or weeks later and sort out a mess of thought if you don’t clarify your writing while the thought is still fresh in your head.

This means I was constantly re-reading and revising what I’ve just written, but also means that when I submitted something to my supervisor it needed very few revisions and saved months, simply by getting as close to “right” as I could the first time round.

Please Note

I’ve had some comments on this post reacting as if I completed my entire PhD in 3 months. No, I did three and a half years of research first, then wrote the thesis. I also do not claim that anyone can write that fast, as it depends on a lot of different factors. This is why the title is “How I wrote…”, not “How to write…”

How many thesis drafts do you need to write?

There will always be more you can do.

But there’s also got to come a point where it’s good enough to submit your thesis and get on with your life.

So here are a few guidelines to revising your thesis from one draft to the next.

First Draft

The content shouldn’t come as a complete surprise to your supervisor if you’ve been communicating during your research.

At the very least, you should discuss what you’re going to put in and a rough outline before you start writing.

Still, it’s going to come back with quite a lot of suggested changes, whether it’s spelling mistakes, factual errors, or changes in the structure or style. That’s OK, as long as you’re clear about what they want you to do to make it better.

If there’s even the slightest doubt, ask.

Second Draft

Any major changes should have been made, and it should be pretty close to the final thing, though there’ll probably be a few new mistakes in there.

At this point, your supervisor shouldn’t suggest any major new sections. If they do… well why didn’t they say so after the first draft? This is why it’s so important to clarify what they want you to do after the first draft.

Third Draft

By this point, there should be no obvious technical mistakes or bits missing.

There will still be spelling errors, there will still be more you could do, but from this point on, any further rounds of revision will have a rapidly diminishing effect on the quality of your thesis.

The hardest thing to edit…

The most difficult thing to edit is your writing style. If in doubt, keep your sentences as short as you can. This will generally make them clearer, and clarity is king.

How to avoid endless rounds of revision

Of course some chapters might take a fourth draft to get right, but if it’s going up to 6 or 7, then it’s just silly. Here’s how to avoid getting into that situation.

  • Discuss the thesis structure with your supervisor before you start
  • Plan chapters before you sit down to write, so you know what you’re going to include before you start
  • Give chapters to your supervisor one at a time, rather than drafts of the entire thesis
  • Don’t keep doing new research once you start writing. If you do need to do some extra, stop writing, finish the research!

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Balance: How to write a thesis the examiner wants to read

What’s the point of your thesis?

Why are you writing? Well, you want to pass the PhD. You want to be able to put “Dr” on your credit card, and so on.

What do you need to do to succeed? You probably think that you need to write a thesis that convinces the examiner that you’re worthy of the honour.  Well that’s true, but there are good ways and bad ways to go about it.

What effect does your writing have on the reader? The way they feel while reading your thesis really matters. If they have to read any sentence three times to work out what you mean, then you’re taking up their time unnecessarily.

Now of course there are some expected standards of formality, but clarity should always come first. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to make your writing clearer.

Shorter sentences are easier to understand (and to write)

If in doubt, make your sentences as short as you can. Flashy writing is optional, clarity is compulsory.

The Flesch Readability Score takes account of the average number of words per sentence, plus other factors such as length of word used, number of words per paragraph, to determine how easy it is to read a piece of text. A low score means it’s harder to read. A negative score is bad news.

For example, comic books score around 90, general plain English between 60 and 70. A university professor will obviously be comfortable with long sentences, with readability scores of 10 or less. But that doesn’t mean that every sentence can be complex.

It’s a good idea to balance long, complex sentences and paragraphs with simpler ones.

Balance: alternate long and short

MS word can give you an average readability score for the whole thesis, but the way you fit long and short sentences together matters more.

Here’s an example from my thesis, with (number of words, readability) after each sentence;

It should perhaps be unsurprising that certain geometric arrangements of matter are preferred by nature (15, 28). Perfect tessellation can only be achieved by triangles, squares and hexagons- of these, the hexagon has the shortest perimeter length per unit area enclosed, and hexagonal packing arrangements are known to be the most efficient (35, 19). Spheres enclose the largest volume per unit surface area, and are intuitively stable forms (14, 47.5). Nature uses the same forms at every length scale; leading to self-similarity and fractal characteristics (15, 30).

The more complex sentence, with 35 words and a readability of 19, is balanced by simpler ones. This brings the average word count per sentence to 19.7 and readability to 34.4. That’s somewhere around the New York Review of Books in terms of readability. Even more complex ideas can be explained the same way;

Figure 1.6 shows the electronic density of states for bulk, 2-D, 1-D and O-D structures (thin films, wires, and nanoparticles) (22, 57.6). The alteration from a continuous to discrete distribution of states arises when the confinement of the structures prevents the formation of a long-range Bloch-type periodic wave potential of the type that is present in an extended crystal (37, 16). The electronic structure approaches the idealized particle in a box potential well (12, 25.4). In the case of quantum dots, the situation may be considered as an intermediate condition between molecular and bulk properties (20, 30).

average (22.7, 34)

Please don’t think you have to measure the readability of every sentence you write! Just be aware that longer sentences make your writing more tiring to read, so you can balance them with shorter ones. It’ll give your writing a natural sense of rhythm.

If you have two very long sentences in succession, try to cut at least one of them. If you can’t, think about making each sentence a whole paragraph. If in doubt, make your sentence shorter.

Start small

The first paragraph of any thesis chapter, section or subsection should usually consist entirely of short sentences (around 15 words maximum). This will help ease them in before the technical detail.

Structure: give the reader a break

Sentence length isn’t the only factor in readability. The arrangement of paragraphs, subsections and sections, as well as the visual presentation, has a massive influence. Like sentences, shorter paragraphs are easier to read. If you run over 100 words

Shorter subsections are always easier, giving the reader a regular break. The examiner will probably, at some point, flick through to see how far they have to go. If there’s another 20 pages before the next break, consider putting one in where you can.

Use your judgement

These are only guidelines to use generally. Sometimes a long sentence is needed, or just feels right. Just don’t forget the reader

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In case you’re interested, or even if you’re not, the average sentence length in this piece is 14.4 words, with a readability of 56.7